Since the time they were in third grade, the rapport between Braxton Graham and Payton Rawlins has been strong. Now, some nine-years later, that bond remains, as evidenced by the winning drive in Wednesday’s Class 3, District 4 football game at Missouri Southern State University.
With the season on the line and the Indians trailing Cassville 13-12 with 1:25 to go in the game, the two hooked up for the game-winning touchdown when Rawlins found Graham from 5-yards out, as the Indians defeated the Wildcats 20-13.
Seneca advances to the district championship game where it will host Aurora, who defeated Reeds Spring on Wednesday, at 7 p.m. Monday at Earl Campbell Stadium in Seneca.
The winning drive was nothing short of entertaining. At one point the Indians faced fourth-and-8 from their own 46. Rawlins threw deep to Graham on the play and the ball fell incomplete, but the Wildcats interfered with Graham, giving the Indians 15 yards and an automatic first down. On the next play, Rawlins found senior receiver Dalan Merriman on a 24-yard pass to set them up at Cassville's 15.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Rawlins said of the pass interference call. “And then Dalan coming through with a huge catch there. I threw the ball up and (Graham) did his job of getting in the guy’s way.”
Rawlins quickly scrambled twice for five-yards each — the second run giving them a first down at the 5-yard line. After spiking the ball to kill the clock with 1:25 to go, Rawlins and Graham got their heads together in the huddle.
“We called a boot and I saw it open over there and I told Payton, ‘Look for me.’ It was open and he threw it. We always know what we’re going to do.”
When Rawlins took the snap he rolled to his right, drawing the defense to his side of the field. When he turned back to his left, just as he suspected, Graham had slipped out to the left flat, away from the defense, and Rawlins found him on what resembled a backdoor screen. Graham secured the toss and raced across the goal line to send the Seneca bench into pandemonium. Rawlins scored on a sneak to complete the two-point conversion to make it 20-13 with 1:20 to go.
“We talked about it, because that (defensive) end was coming hard,” Rawlins said “I was booting away and that guy was coming hard, so I had to get (turned) around and he was open there like he said he was going to be.”
The Indians forced four incompletions on Cassville’s final drive, with Graham swatting away the final pass to seal the win.
Page 2 of 3 - “I’m speechless,” Rawlins said, seemingly soaking up the moment as he stood in the end zone with his helmet still on.
“It was a great game,” Indians coach Dan Scheible said. “A lot of credit goes to Cassville, because they played hard and did a lot of good things. I didn’t think we played very well. I feel like we made some mistakes and, you know, the fact that we played poorly, I feel bad. The fact that we played poorly and still won …”
“We’re going to have to play better against Aurora this coming Monday if we’re going to advance from here.”
A veteran team filled with seniors, the leadership of some of Seneca’s upperclassmen was the key late in this one.
“Tremendous resiliency there at the end,” Scheible said. “I thought that Payton Rawlins really showed a tremendous ability to run with the football. I thought he took over the game. I thought our defense played well. They’d bend, but they didn’t break.”
The Indians seemingly had their backs to the wall from the very start. After Cassville won the opening toss and elected to defer to the second half, the gamble paid off as the Indians muffed the opening kick and the Wildcats pounced on it to take over at Seneca’s 33. They would turn it over four plays later, however, when senior defensive lineman Ryker Skelton buried quarterback Gabe Kirk to force an incompletion on fourth down at the 27.
The Indians quickly moved the ball on their next drive, but another turnover, this time on a fumble, gave the Wildcats the ball at their own 45. They quickly marched to the Indians’ 12 before coming up short on a 36-yard field goal try. Finally, the Indians managed to capitalize, as they marched 80 yards on seven plays and scored on a 31-yard run by Graham to make it 6-0 with 28 seconds left in the first quarter.
After trading punts for most of the second quarter, the Wildcats marched to Seneca’s 14 with just over a minute to go in the first half, but turned it over on downs when the Indians stuffed tailback Brent Thompson at the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-3. The Indians then went three-and-out and were forced to punt the ball back to the Wildcats with 44 seconds left.
And they struck.
Following a short run by Thompson on first down, the Wildcats elected to throw deep on second down, and Kirk hit Marcus Weatherman between two defenders to give the Wildcats the ball inside Seneca’s 1-yard line with eight seconds left. Hayden Prater then scooted into the end zone with six seconds left, and Bradley Lueckenhoff booted the extra point to make it 7-6 at the half.
Page 3 of 3 - With momentum on its side, the Wildcats made it as far as Seneca’s 39 on their first drive of the third quarter before punting. The Indians took over at their own 15 and Graham scooted free on a 79-yard run to set up first-and-goal at Cassville 6. Rawlins snuck into the paint two plays later. The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Indians led 12-7 with 8:49 left in the third.
Seneca’s defense thwarted back-to-back Cassville drives in the third when Dalan Merriman pounced on a fumble and Graham picked off a Kirk pass in the end zone for a touchback on fourth-and-16 with 23 seconds left.
The Wildcats took the lead following a pair of 22-yard runs by Prater and Thompson early in the fourth quarter, and scored on a 3-yard run by Kirk with 8:27 left in the game to make it 13-12.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” Graham said. “We knew it would be much tougher than last time. Last time we came out and beat them 26-7, but we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We knew it was going to be a fight. Adversity, and we had to keep overcoming it. I’m proud of this team.”
Graham finished with 193 yards on 23 carries with a rushing touchdown and a receiving TD. Rawlins completed nine passes for 97 yards and a score.
The win was a homecoming of sorts for Scheible, who coached for 16 years at Missouri Southern. The game had originally been intended for Earl Campbell Stadium in Seneca, but heavy rain this week necessitated a move to Fred G. Hughes Stadium. Scheible said he felt at home.
“It felt great,” he said. “I coached here for 16 years. It’s great to come back here and win a football game.”